A/N: This was written for a challenge prompt over at hoodie_time on livejournal. I was given a chunk of writing and then made the story around it.

xxxx

This is how it starts:

A hunt goes bad, as hunts so often do, and Sam and Dean are separated. By the time Sam is able to get to Dean again, his brother is gone and in his place is a tiny tow-headed, wide-eyed little boy, freckles spattering his cheeks, clothes in a heap around his ankles. The kid's clutching a gun in both trembling hands.

Sam doesn't want to believe it's his brother standing naked next to an open grave, but he has a vague, fuzzy memory of what his older brother looked like as a kid, and there is little doubt that this is him. Not to mention that Dean's clothes are puddled around his ankles and he's clutching Dean's Colt 1911 in both trembling hands.

"Dean?" Sam says, taking in the tiny form. His mind is racing, trying to figure out how this happened, and how it can be remedied. Of course, there are more pressing matters at hand.

"Hey, Dean? Why don't you give me the gun, huh?"

Dean doesn't loosen his grip on the gun, but it's shaking badly and there are goosebumps on his arms and legs.

"Come on buddy," Sam says, suddenly incredibly aware of how huge he is compared to his brother. That coupled with the fact that he's still holding his sawed-off…it's no wonder the kid's scared to death. Sam drops the gun to the side, then falls to his knees in front of Dean and smiles lopsidedly. Dean's stance doesn't change, but he swallows audibly and he shivers, his eyes wide and scared.

Sam sits back on his heels and runs a hand through his hair. Dean's always been better with kids than Sam is, and Sam is feeling a little lost without him. It's pretty clear that Dean's feeling a little lost, too- more than a little. Sam leans forward again.

"You cold, buddy?" Dean continues staring at him for a second before nodding almost imperceptibly. "Why don't you give me the gun and we'll get you warmed up, huh?"

Dean starts shaking worse than before and his lower lip starts to tremble. Slowly, he reaches out the hand with the gun. Sam gently takes it from him and shoves it into his waistband, then sits for a second, unsure of what to do next.

"Can I help you get dressed? Would that be okay?" Dean silently nods again, but he shrinks back as Sam moves closer, and Sam winces. "Listen, I'm not going to hurt you, Dean. I promise you, I will not hurt you. Okay?"

Dean nods again, then takes a deep breath as Sam moves forward, picking up Dean's –Big Dean's- flannel. Sam gently tucks it around the boy's shoulders, loops his arms through the sleeves that are massively too big, then rolls them up so that Dean's hands can poke through. The shirt practically hits the ground.

"Hey, at least we don't have to worry about pants, huh?" Sam says, smiling. Dean doesn't respond other than to wrap his arms around his stomach and shiver lightly. Sam frowns.

"Still cold?"

Dean nods, and he looks dangerously close to bursting into tears or collapsing altogether.

"Okay, the car's a fair distance from here, so I'm going to carry you. Is that okay with you?"

Dean looks hesitant, but then another shiver wracks his small frame, and he nods miserably.

"Alright, buddy, here we go," Sam says, wrapping his arms around Dean's trembling form. He's so damn small, and he's stiff and rigid, scarcely breathing. Poor kid is terrified.

"Hey, I'm not going to hurt you," Sam says, shifting Dean so that his head is resting on Sam's shoulder, then starts rubbing at his back, trying to soothe the tight muscles. "You're okay."

Dean is clutching at Sam's shirt, fistfuls of it gripped in his tiny hands, and when Sam glances down, he can see that his knuckles are white.

Sam doesn't know what to do. He doesn't know how to calm Dean down, he doesn't know how to get Dean- his Dean- back, he doesn't know what to do from here- Sam forces himself to take a deep breath and focus on the task at hand. Thinking too far ahead is just going to overwhelm him.

"Hey, there's the car, Dean. There's the Impala," Sam whispers once the car looms into view, hopes that the familiar sight will help comfort the little boy, but instead, Dean goes totally and completely rigid, the color draining from his face.

"Dean? Dean, what is it?" Sam asks, setting the boy down next to the door and fumbling in Big Dean's pants for the keys. Dean bolts as soon as his feet hit the ground and he scrambles under the car.

"Dean! Hey, are you okay? Dean, please, answer me," Sam says, lying on his belly and peering under the car. Dean's wrapped up in a ball, his eyes wide and glittering off of Sam's flashlight.

"Where's my daddy?" Dean screams. They're the first words he's said since he changed, and the high-pitched, hoarse, but somehow familiar voice cements that this boy is, in fact, Dean.

"Your daddy isn't here, but I'm his friend, Dean. He- he let me use the car to come get you."

"No!" Dean yells, scooting further from Sam. "Where's Sammy? I want my dad!"

"Dean, I'm a friend of your dad's. Your dad couldn't come get you, and your brother is- he's safe, Dean. I'm here to help you, buddy."

"You- you look scary," Dean says, his voice tremulous. "You c-could be a bad guy."

Sam feels his heart melt. "I'm not a bad guy, Dean. I'm- I'm Sam."

Dean frowns, his little brow scrunching up. "S-Sam?"

"Yep."

"Like Sammy?" Dean whispers.

"Yeah, like Sammy," Sam answers. Dean squinches his eyes shut.

"Who are-are you? I'm s-scared," he mumbles, bringing his hands up to cradle his head.

"I'm your Uncle Sam, bud," Sam says, trying to think of something that might connect with Dean. If a connection between brothers doesn't do it, than he doesn't know what will.

"I'm your dad's baby brother."

Dean's eyes pop open, and he sniffles.

"R-really?" He whispers, breath hitching.

"Really. Your dad told me that you're really good at watching out for little brothers. Is that true?"

Dean nods slowly.

"Man, I wish someone could help watch out for me. My big brother isn't here right now."

Dean's eyes widen, and he opens his mouth as if to speak before closing it again. Instead, he reaches out a tiny hand and settles it over Sam's outstretched one. Sam unexpectedly feels his eyes welling up.

"Why don't you come out of there, and we'll go home, huh? We can watch out for each other."

Dean stares for a second, then slowly inches toward Sam and reaches out both arms, allowing Sam to gently pull him out.

"There you go, kiddo," Sam says, wrapping his arms around Dean and bundling him into the passenger seat. "Let's get you warmed up before you get sick, huh?"

Dean huddles against the door, sniffling lightly. Sam tucks a blanket around him and heads toward their hotel.

This is how the first night goes:

Dean sits on his bed, looking tiny and scared, knees tucked up into his chest; He hasn't said a word since demanding to know where his father is. He's got one of Big Dean's AC/DC shirts on, and it fairly dwarfs him, hitting just above his ankles and making him appear even smaller. He looks tired, absolutely exhausted, but he's doggedly staying awake and staring determinedly at Sam.

Sam sits on his bed and stares back.

"You can go to sleep, buddy. I'm not going to hurt you."

Dean doesn't answer, just continues to stare. Sam sighs.

"Fine. But I guarantee you'll fall asleep before I do."

Dean juts his chin out defiantly. He's got to be only four or five, and already he's a stubborn little bastard.

"Guaranteed," Sam repeats. "You're gonna pass out eventually."

The stare-off continues for a few minutes that seem endless before Dean's eyelids start to droop. He scrubs fiercely at his eyes and scowls, but finally drifts asleep, listing gently to the side. A few minutes later, he starts to snore lightly, so Sam leans down and tucks a blanket around his shoulders. Dean sniffles lightly but doesn't wake, and Sam, though he kind of wants to panic and part of him is aching for the companionship of his brother, can't keep himself from brushing a few strands of hair from Dean's forehead.

A few hours later, Sam's woken by moaning.

"Dean, wake up," Sam groans. Since he got back from Hell. Dean's nightmares are sadly frequent, but he gets embarrassed and bitchy if Sam tries to comfort him about them. "Dean!"

The moans stop abruptly, followed by a tiny sniffle, and Sam curses himself even as he jumps up. He's forgotten about Dean being younger, and apparently the little guy doesn't react to the nightmares in quite the same way as Big Dean.

"Hey, hey buddy, I'm sorry I yelled at you," Sam says, sitting on the edge of Dean's bed. The little boy sniffles again.

"Would it be okay if I slept with you tonight?" Sam continues. Dean is trembling with fear, but if he's anything like his adult counterpart, there's no way he'll ask for help. "I'm a little bit scared of this dark room."

Next thing he knows, Dean has launched himself into Sam's arms, trembling and tense. Sam isn't sure what to do, but he clutches the small form close to his chest, wraps his arms around the shaking back and just holds on.

A few hours later, Sam wakes up with Dean sprawled across his chest, a little puddle of drool under his mouth. Sam can't help but smile and resists the urge to ruffle the short blonde hair, instead settling back and letting himself fall asleep, reassured by the tiny puffs of air brushing his chest.

This is how things fall apart:

Sam calls Bobby the next morning, tells him what's going on. He feels a little bit bad that they use Bobby so shamelessly every time they're in over their heads, but he knows that Bobby would kick his ass for even thinking it, especially in this situation. Bobby sounds simultaneously pissed and frustrated and concerned, mumbles something about 'damn Winchesters' before saying that he'll look into it and Sam had better haul ass to the junkyard because they need to work together and because no way in hell is he keeping the kid in a dirty motel room.

Sam figures Bobby's is as good a place as any to kind of raise a kid, and really, where else is he going to go, so he buys a car seat at Wal-Mart and tucks Dean into it, breaking all kinds of rules by settling the little guy up front in the passenger seat. Dean still isn't talking to him but they seem to have made some progress and bonded a bit, as he's sitting and playing quietly with the cars that Sam picked up on his run to the store, little feet kicking against the seat. Sam's relieved that the kid isn't glaring at him anymore, and that he feels comfortable enough to stop keeping watch and just play is a good sign.

"Hey buddy, are you hungry?" Sam asks. Dean doesn't answer, but the vroom vroom noises stop and he looks up, all wide eyes under furrowed brow. Sam sighs.

"Fine, kid, you don't have to talk to me, but I'm not going to keep asking. I'm not hungry yet so if you are, you'd better tell me now."

Dean blinks and fiddles uncomfortably with one of his cars, then sighs.

"Not hungry," he says, peering up at Sam under his long lashes. "Yet."

"Oh," Sam says. "Right. We'll stop in a while then, huh?"

Dean nods, then freezes, looking sideways at Sam. "I mean yeah," he says.

Sam smiles, an intense feeling of relief and excitement that the kid is finally talking to him, even if it is just a few words. He has the sudden urge to talk to this Dean, to find out what's going through his head, but he doesn't want to overwhelm him, either.

"So. Do you like those cars?" He asks finally, deciding it's a safe place to start. Dean is quiet for a moment.

"Yeah. I like the black one."

Sam glances sideways, noting that the black car is a Mustang. Big Dean would have scoffed at such a 'girly' choice.

"Yeah? I think it's pretty great, too," he says. Dean grins for a second before quickly reverting back to his serious face. Sam's surprised when Dean is the next to talk.

"You're really big," he says. Sam looks at him, startled, before turning back to the road.

"Yeah, I guess I am," he says.

"Will I ever get big?" Dean asks, ducking his head shyly. Sam chuckles.

"You'll get big, Dean. Maybe not as big as me, but definitely big."

Dean grins again and pushes the Mustang happily along the door.

"Mommy says I'm gonna grow up handsome like Daddy," Dean says. Sam's stomach drops.

"I'm sure you will," he croaks, then offers up a silent prayer to whoever the hell is listening that Bobby will have a way to revert Dean back before he has to explain that he's an orphan.

They stop at the next diner they see, a small but well-kept restaurant with little buckets of crayons and coloring mats for Dean. Dean starts to color right away, and Sam is fascinated by how carefully the little guy is filling the picture in. For a four year old, he's doing pretty well.

"That looks really good, Dean," Sam comments. Dean blushes and ducks his head, then smiles.

"Thanks," he says. He has a hint of a lisp and his freckles stick out and his hair is white-blonde. Damn if he isn't the cutest kid Sam's ever seen.

Bobby's gonna flip.

"What do you want to order, bud?" Sam asks, flipping through the "adult" menu. He's thinking he might go for a steak, medium rare, because he deserves to splurge a bit after the past few days and he's damn hungry.

"Grilled cheese?" Dean says, his voice hopeful.

"Great choice," Sam says, setting his menu aside. He's definitely getting the steak.

"And chocolate milk?" Dean adds, eyes wide with excitement. Sam can't say no if he wants to.

"Sure, kid."

The waitress comes around, all smiles for Dean.

"Well aren't you the cutest thing," she says, grinning as her pen hovers over her notepad. "You all ready to order?"

Sam glances at Dean and can tell that even with as much progress as they've made, he's not ready to talk to a stranger.

"Yeah," Sam says. "I'd like a steak, and Dean wants a grilled cheese sandwich."

The waitress nods as she writes, then looks up, still grinning ridiculously. Sam's mildly irritated to find that Dean pretty much has the same effect on women that he had as an adult.

"Anything else, sweetie?"

Dean looks at Sam, then tugs on his shirt. Sam leans over, unable to contain a smile as Dean whispers loudly in his ear.

"Oh yeah," he says to the waitress, winking. "We'd like two chocolate milks, please."

Dean giggles as Sam asks for two, and the waitress looks like she's on the verge of melting.

"Sure thing, gentlemen," she says. "Two chocolate milks, coming right up."

Dean turns back to the drawing, carefully filling in the restaurant's cartoony depiction of a farm. When the chocolate milks arrive, huge glasses full to the brim with straws sticking out, Dean's eyes widen and he grins broadly. Sam deliberately makes slurping noises as he drinks his, and Dean giggles. The sound is unexpected and cuter than hell, and Sam feels a strange sense of both overwhelming love for the little kid in front of him and overwhelming sadness for the man that should be in his place.

"Pretty good, huh?" He says after a minute of swallowing thickly and blinking rapidly.

"Mm-hmm," Dean says, slurping his own straw and giggling again.

The waitress comes back with their meals, beaming when she sees them drinking.

"You two are just the cutest things!" She cries, passing them their plates. Dean grins even wider when he sees his sandwich, yellow cheese oozing onto the plate.

"Looks good, kid," Sam comments, then watches in satisfaction as the waitress sets a large steak down in front of him. He cuts into it, noting with satisfaction that it's medium rare, just moist enough that a little bit of red liquid still oozes out.

He's only taken a bite when Dean lets out a startled squeak that is clearly distressed.

"Dean?" Sam says, frowning. "Are you okay?"

Dean doesn't answer. He's staring at Sam's plate, eyes wide and unmistakably frightened.

"Dean?" Sam repeats. He scoots closer to Dean and moves to put a hand on his arm, and is startled when Dean jerks away.

"Hey, come here, bud," Sam says, but Dean scoots away again and Sam realizes that he's crying.

If there's one thing that makes Sam feel more helpless than seeing Dean cry, (and therefore having irrefutable proof that his big brother did, in fact, have working tear ducts) it's seeing this baby version of him do it. Dean sets his jaw against the emotion just the way they did when he was older, but then his eyes go all big and shiny, and as Sam stares, mesmerized, one tear slides fatly down his cheek. He wipe it away immediately with one small, angry fist, but another tear follows, and then another. When their waitress reappears and Sam is still just sitting there working out his next move, she looks at him as if he were guzzling down a demon blood smoothie right in front of her.

Dean's face is getting all red and blotchy now.

"Uh," Sam says, alarmed. "Can we, uh, get some to go boxes?"

The waitress nods and walks away leaving Sam and Dean alone again. Sam worries his bottom lip between his teeth for a moment before speaking quietly, careful not to startle Dean.

"Dean? Please, kiddo, are you okay? Are you feeling alright?"

Dean's only response is to scrub angrily at the tears again before looking down at his plate, sniffling lightly. Sam's pretty sure his heart is breaking, and he has no idea what else to say to the crying child.

The waitress comes back with the to go boxes and Sam quickly boxes up their food, then looks at Dean.

"You ready to go, buddy?"

Dean nods without looking up.

"Do you want me to carry you?" Sam asks. He's surprised how hopeful he is that the answer will be yes. Dean just shakes his head, sliding out of the booth and walking slowly away, dragging his feet.

"Hey, you forgot your picture, Dean. Don't you want it?"

Dean shakes his head again. Sam looks down at the drawing, at the carefully filled in farm animals, and carefully folds it before tucking it into a pocket.

Dean curls up against the door of the Impala, one of his cars clenched tightly in one hand, a blanket wrapped around him. He doesn't speak to Sam for the entire trip, and he only stops crying when he finally falls asleep.

Sam runs a hand through his hair and tries to calm himself down, tries to figure out what caused Dean's sudden change, but he comes up blank. Hopefully Bobby can help.

xxxx

Dean's sleeping on the couch, his face tear-streaked and his cheeks rosy.

"I don't know what happened, Bobby," Sam says, taking a swig of the beer Bobby plops down in front of him. "I heard him yell and then by the time I got there..."

Bobby scrubs at his beard for a second, wincing.

"You killed the witch before you found Dean?"

"Yeah," Sam says, nodding. "I must have run into her right after she turned Dean."

Bobby sighs.

"Balls."

"What?" Sam barks, sitting upright and frowning. "What?"

"You know I'm going to be looking for a solution for this, Sam. I'll keep looking no matter how long it takes."

"Just tell me, Bobby," Sam says, his voice low. Bobby takes his hat off and runs his hand through his hair before settling the hat again.

"That witch's dying spell was to curse Dean, Sam. A spell sealed by blood…well, that's a pretty powerful thing."

Sam's quiet a minute.

"You mean this is permanent?" He says finally, his voice quiet.

"I mean that I don't know of any solutions, Sam, but that don't mean there aren't any. I'm gonna keep looking, make some phone calls, but…but you should be prepared to do what you need to."

Sam swallows loudly, feeling tears welling up.

"He stays with me," he says finally. "For however long that is, Dean's with me."

Bobby nods and smiles tiredly.

"That's good, Sam, and you know that the two of you are welcome here for as long as you need."

"Thanks, Bobby. I'm going to stay down here for the night; I don't want to wake Dean, and I don't want him to be alone."

"Of course. Sleep well, and I'll see you two in the morning," Bobby says.

Sam folds himself into Bobby's recliner and pulls a blanket around his shoulders. Dean's sprawled on his stomach on the couch, and Sam smiles. It's nice to see that some things stay the same.

A few hours later, Sam's woken by Dean whimpering. He gets up and kneels next to the couch, waits for a minute to see of the nightmare will clear up on its own; Sam doesn't want to wake him if he doesn't have to, especially with how Dean's been reacting to him lately.

The nightmare shows no sign of abating, though, and Dean whimpers piteously, twitching occasionally. There's something almost disturbing in how…restrained he looks, as though in his nightmare he's unable to move.

Sam's had enough.

"Dean? Come on, buddy," he says, gently shaking Dean's shoulder. Dean bolts upright, eyes wide and chest heaving, eyes glimmering in the dim moonlight.

"You okay?"

Dean nods, then turns onto his side, body trembling and breath shuddering. Sam wants to hug the little guy, just bundle him up and make him feel safe, but Dean is clearly having none of it, so he goes back to his chair.

It takes him a long time to fall back to sleep.

xxxx

"I don't know what's wrong, Bobby," Sam says, watching Dean pick listlessly at his cereal. He'd hoped that maybe a good night's sleep would help Dean feel better in the morning, but the nightmare didn't help, and Sam wonders if the kid slept at all afterward.

"He won't eat, he won't talk, he hardly even looks at me. I thought we were making progress, but now…"

Dean is almost completely unresponsive to Sam and Bobby. Even Sam's appeal to Dean's protective side doesn't do anything, and he honestly doesn't feel like he could keep manipulating the kid like that anyway.

"I don't know, Sam. Keep trying with him, I'll do the same. Hopefully either he'll start to come around or we'll find a way to reverse this soon."

Sam nods, a feeling of unease settling in his stomach. Dean had been coming around, but something changed.

He just needs to figure it out.

This is how things get worse before they get better:

Bobby's hope that things would resolve soon one way or another proves to be fruitless. Dean hasn't spoken in a week, and the small frame is even more emaciated than he was when he first appeared. There are perpetual bags under his eyes, and he seems listless and lethargic at the best of times, and his nose runs almost constantly. Sam is starting to panic a little bit, and it only gets worse when Dean starts coughing too. Sam manages to get Dean to take cough medicine, but other than the occasional slice of toast, he hardly eats anything.

At one point, Sam decides to take the bull by the horns and comfort Dean whether he wants it or not, make him see that Sam isn't there to hurt him and that comforting is a good thing, damn it. Instead, Dean goes rigid in his arms and his breath starts sawing in and out to the point that he's almost hyperventilating. Sam feels a huge pang of guilt as he sets Dean down and watches as the kid calms down, then scurries away.

Sam will never admit it, but he sniffles and has to wipe his eyes as Dean leaves.

Occasionally, Dean has a reaction similar to the one he had at the diner, stopping stock still and staring. Sometimes these spells are followed by crying, but more often than not Dean recovers, then retreats hastily to the coat closet. Sam is both heartbroken and perplexed; he can't figure out a pattern to Dean's reactions. One was to the paring knife Sam was using to peel potatoes, one was to a fishing hook that Bobby was putting in his tackle box, one was to the sound of Bobby's dog barking outside. Sam can't figure out what the trigger is, doesn't know what to do. He's never felt at such a loss as to what course of action is the right one.

He keeps trying, though, because there's no way in hell he's giving up on this kid, on his brother.

"Dean," Sam says one morning, kneeling down in front of the solemn boy. "Dean, please, eat something. How about a sandwich, huh? Grilled cheese, just the way you like it?"

Dean doesn't respond, and Sam sighs, running a hand through his hair. Part of him wants to hold Dean down and just cram the food down his throat, but Dean seems so fragile that the thought of doing that actually pains him.

"I love you, kid," he says finally. "But I don't know what to do anymore. Please, let me help you, Dean, please."

Dean turns his head away.

This is how Sam figures it out:

Days later, Dean's cough changes. It sounds bad, almost like a seal, and Sam winces every time he hears it. He's not sure at what point he needs to take Dean in to the doctor and racks his brain in an attempt to remember from his own childhood, but John wasn't exactly an exemplary father and he doesn't remember getting sick much anyway.

Then Dean starts making a weird wheezing sound after every round of coughing, sometimes accompanied by puking, and Sam's had enough. Dean already looks like he's on the verge of malnourishment, and vomiting sure as hell isn't going to help anything. It's also more than Sam can handle, having to watch his big-little-brother curled over the toilet and refusing to allow himself to be comforted. Bobby agrees and calls in to the doctor's office while Sam heads off to wrangle Dean into shoes and a coat without freaking him out too much.

"Hey bud," he says, kneeling down next to Dean. "You don't look very good. How about we go to the doctor's office and get you taken care of, huh?"

Sam's nervous about the prospect of a doctor touching his brother, but Dean needs help and there's no way to get around it.

"I'll be right there with you," he says as he eases Dean's arms into his coat sleeves, then takes a deep breath. "I'm going to have to introduce myself as your father, okay? I'm sorry, Dean, I know I'm not your real dad, and you're still waiting for him but…"

Dean doesn't answer but allows Sam to help him get dressed without complaint, and he's more relaxed than Sam's seen him for awhile. He assumes his usual position in the car, curled up against the window, making himself as small as possible.

The nurse who leads them into the exam room already looks concerned after seemingly only glancing at Dean, and Sam tries to keep himself from veering into worst-scenario territory. It's too late, though, and he's already imagining CPS agents swooping in and taking Dean and accusing him of neglect…

"The doctor will be in soon," the nurse says with a strained smile as she leaves. Sam swallows down the concern he feels and watches Dean closely. The poor kid is hunched miserably on the exam bed, the ever-present circles under his eyes popping more than ever.

"How you doing, buddy?" Sam asks. Dean shrugs, still refuses to make eye contact with him. Sam sighs and wishes, again, that he could offer more support to the little guy. "I'm right here, kiddo. Not going anywhere."

When the doctor comes in and immediately moves to take Dean's shirt off, Sam finds himself steeling for the now-familiar reaction from Dean, the discomfort and rigidity, but Dean seems pliant, if not relaxed. Sam feels relieved and hurt simultaneously.

Dean breaks into another coughing fit, and this one sees him exhausted and listing slightly to the side. The doctor frowns and helps hold Dean upright, then moves his stethoscope around. He frowns again when he gets Dean's blood pressure and when he feels Dean's neck.

"Mr. Winchester, can I speak with you for a minute?" The doctor says, gently directing Dean into lying down on the exam bed.

"Sure," Sam says, alarms ringing in his head. They step into the hallway, where the doctor immediately sighs.

"Mr. Winchester, your son is dangerously ill, and I'm going to try to get him admitted to the hospital as soon as possible."

Sam blinks at both the unexpected candor and at what the doctor is saying.

"W-what?" He mumbles.

"He's suffering from whooping cough, which is severe enough without malnourishment and dehydration on top of it," the doctor says. "Has Dean been eating well lately?"

"No," Sam says, shaking his head and feeling incredibly guilty. "I've been trying to get him to eat, but…"

The doctor nods.

"Picky eaters are always a challenge, but it's going to be crucial in the future that you get Dean to eat. As it is, hopefully an IV will help him perk up, and we'll give him an NG tube if necessary."

"Okay," Sam says, running a hand through his hair. "Okay. What now?"

"I'm going to go make sure everything's good to go at the hospital and we'll get you set up."

"Right, okay," Sam says, taking a deep breath. "Thanks."

Sam walks back into the exam room and sits next to Dean on the exam bed, careful not to touch him.

"So you're pretty sick, buddy," Sam says, watching Dean closely for reaction. "But we're going to get you better soon. That's why you need to go to the hospital for a little bit, okay? But I'm going to be there, and Bobby will come see you, and you're going to feel so much better when you get out. Sound good?"

Dean blinks lethargically, then turns his wide eyes to Sam for the first time in what seems like forever.

"I remember," Dean says quietly. "You don't have to pretend."

"I don't have to pretend…what?" Sam says, frowning. As elated as he is to hear Dean talking, he has a bad feeling about this.

"Mommy and Daddy are dead. You're…you're Sammy," Dean says, his lower lip trembling.

"I'm so sorry," Sam says quietly, reaching a hand out. Dean shies away from it, and this time when he looks up, his eyes are sparkling with tears.

"Why are you nice to me?" He says quietly. "I'm- I'm bad."

"What? Dean, you are not bad," Sam says, horrified.

"I am," Dean says, and this time the tears are falling freely. "I am bad, Sam, I'm bad!"

"No!" Sam barks, more forcefully than he wants. "No, Dean, you are a great kid, and you are in no way bad."

"I- I hurted people," Dean whispers, his voice tremulous. "I hurted people with bad things, and they screamed and screamed but I still did. I didn't stop, Sam, even though they wanted me to! How- how can you be so n-nice to me? Mommy always said that hurting is bad, 'cause we should be nice to people and they should be treated like we want, but I did it on purpose. I-I dream about it, sometimes, and sometimes I 'member things, and I just-I want it to stop!" Dean's voice breaks as he launches into another coughing spell that leaves him red-faced and gasping.

Sam's reeling. Suddenly Dean's reactions make sense; the knife, the hook, the dogs, oh shit the steak- Dean remembers Hell. He remembers but he doesn't understand, can't understand, and how do you explain all that happened to a four year old? How does Dean remember torturing but not being tortured, but not sacrificing himself for his brother?

This little kid, this sweet, innocent kid has been dreaming about Hell for weeks. Sam knows right then that he's going to lie, for as long as he needs to, because there is no way he's letting this Dean suffer for something he didn't really do.

"Dean, you listen to me," Sam says, finally recovered enough to speak. "Those are bad dreams, Dean, nightmares. You did not do those things, and you're not a bad person. You're an amazing kid Dean, and whatever you do, I'm going to love you. Do you understand me?"

Dean is trembling, coughing weakly, but he nods.

Though he feels bad considering how ill Dean feels, he needs more confirmation that is brother knows how serious he is. "Dean. You did not hurt people, and you are definitely not a bad person. And I love you, no matter what. Do you understand?"

"Yes," Dean croaks, then leans into Sam's side, his warm, damp face pressing into Sam's shirt. "I love you too."

Sam lets the tears fall as he wraps his arms around Dean and pulls him into his lap, softly cradling the thin form to his chest.

"It's okay, kid," he whispers, rubbing Dean's back. "I love you, Dean, and everything's going to be okay. Everything's going to be okay."

And even though they're about to go to the hospital, and even though Dean is little maybe for forever, and even though Sam has no idea what the future holds-

This is how they survive:

They're together.

And everything's okay.